A university president’s advice for Betsy DeVos regarding higher education

courtesy West Virginia University

While Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos is a passionate advocate for reforming our nation’s schools, her views on higher education are less well known. The U.S. Department Education has a major impact on colleges and universities and their students, especially regarding financial aid and civil rights.

Mrs. DeVos’ confirmation hearing shed little light on the policies she would pursue. With more than three decades of experience leading colleges and universities, I would like to offer the nominee some advice on the urgent issues facing higher education today.

The student loan crisis

In her confirmation hearing remarks, Mrs. DeVos correctly identified soaring college costs and increasing student loan debt as a crisis for our country. I could not agree more. Tuition prices have outpaced inflation for decades, forcing students and parents into borrowing. Americans currently owe more than $1 trillion on student loans. It is important to ensure that all institutions benefiting from federal student loans are accountable to taxpayers and students regarding the job outcomes of their graduates.

{mosads}I also agree with Mrs. DeVos that colleges and universities must take the lead in reducing college costs by lancing bloated bureaucracies and expanding less expensive pathways to success. Trade and vocational schools and community colleges can expand opportunity for those whose career goals do not require a four-year degree.

However, in today’s knowledge-based economy, a four-year degree offers a greater value more than ever. The most powerful evidence is that the unemployment rate for 25-34 year olds who graduate from a four-year college is 2.4 percent. The unemployment rate for 25-34 year olds without a four-year college degree is three times higher. Increasing access to higher education is critical to creating prosperity for all. 

Free speech

Protecting free speech on campus is an issue on which I am fervently passionate — and I agree with Mrs. DeVos wholeheartedly. It is through listening to people who think differently from others that we learn about the world and discover who we really are. And I believe that is one of the most valuable experiences one can have on a college campus.

While supporting free speech, colleges and universities must also commit to keeping our campuses inclusive and safe. Ensuring that everyone can enjoy the fruits of education is a fundamental role for the Department of Education, so I was particularly glad to hear Mrs. DeVos say all students should feel safe and free from discrimination in their schools.

The difficult question, however, is how do we, as higher education leaders, create an atmosphere in which people will not be afraid of challenging conversations? How do we lay the foundation that teaches our young people the skills they need to engage in civil discourse? I believe we need to focus on three ingredients: awareness, transparency and student leadership. 

Sexual assault on campus

On the serious issue of sexual assault on college campuses, Mrs. DeVos has not offered specific recommendations. During the Obama administration, the Department of Education issued strict guidelines for handling alleged cases of sexual assault, considered a form of discrimination under the law known as Title IX.

I believe the most effective sexual assault prevention involves treating students as adults and engaging them to find solutions for recognizing assault, intervening in situations of assault and creating an environment in which assault is wholly unacceptable. Campus leaders must be transparent about the issue of sexual violence and encouraged students to have the difficult, often awkward, discussions needed on these issues. 

Excessive regulation

Today, in our country, rules have replaced leadership. Regulations and outdated laws have us handcuffed. No one ever asks, “What is the right thing to do here?” Instead they wonder, “What does the rule book say?”

In this excessive regulatory atmosphere, higher education has been increasingly federalized. I hope that Mrs. DeVos can guide the Department of Education to pare down the rule book burdening colleges and universities. Nonsense must be replaced with common sense.

Preparation for college

As a university president, I care deeply about the role our nation’s schools have in preparing children for college and careers. For far too long, educators have acted in isolation from one another, imagining the broad framework of education as a zero-sum game. 

The truth is colleges and universities cannot solve our nation’s problems alone, and neither can primary and secondary schools. The Department of Education certainly cannot. Instead, we must pursue deeper and meaningful partnerships — with one another, with business and industry, with government, and with our communities.

While more than 80 percent of higher education students attend public colleges and universities, higher education has long benefited from a diversified education system that includes large and small, public and private, religious and secular, comprehensive and specialized institutions.

This diversity has kept our higher education system the best in the world, while our public education system has slipped to the 36th place internationally. I believe Mrs. DeVos’ plan to expand choices and options in K-12 education will help our children succeed in the global marketplace. Nothing is more important. 

As educators, we have a covenant with our children and our children’s children. Education promotes individual opportunity, stimulates the economy and creates jobs. But it does more than that: It preserves our freedom — and it opens the doorway to the American dream.

I look forward to working with Mrs. DeVos to keep the American dream within reach for all.

E. Gordon Gee is the president of West Virginia University

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill

Tags Betsy DeVos Department of Education E. Gordon Gee Education reform Higher education Morgantown Trump Administration United States Washington D.C. West Virginia University
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